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Cup race at Sonoma could shake up potential Chase wild-cards

While many in NASCAR view a trip to Sonoma, Calif, as a chance to visit nearby San Francisco, tour wineries or drive along the coast, Montoya and other Sprint Cup drivers look at this weekend differently. They're focused on Infineon Raceway, a twisty, narrow road course where traffic tests drivers as much as the 101.

With a new points system -- and a new way to make the Chase -- the two Cup road courses could play a greater role in determining who makes the playoffs.

There is no better chance for Montoya, Marcos Ambrose and AJ Allmendinger, who all have extensive road racing experience, to solidify their Chase hopes than this weekend.

Eleven races remain until the Chase field is set, and it remains murky who will grab the two wild-card spots -- for drivers with the most wins between 11th and 20th in the points. Jeff Gordon is the only driver between 11th and 20th in the points to have won. He has two victories, a total many agree all but guarantees a driver a wild-card spot. Thus, if a driver could sweep the road course races, he too would likely get the chance to race for a title.

While an opportunity for some, the road courses are dangerous for others. Should Montoya, Ambrose, Allmendinger or any other driver fighting for a wild-card spot (Tony Stewart, Mark Martin and Kasey Kahne, for example) win, it could impact others.

Brad Keselowski has a win, but is 22nd in the points. If he can't climb into the top-20, his win won't matter in regards to the Chase. He needs good results.

"I have Marcos Ambrose and Juan Montoya in front of me in points, both who could easily win those road course races, along with AJ Allmendinger,'' Keselowski said. "That would completely ruin any shot that I have unless I was to win another race.''

Montoya's up-and-down season has him 15th in points heading into this weekend. He understands what's at stake, especially at a track where he's won once and never finished outside the top-10 in four starts.

"I look at those races as ones we can make a lot of points,'' Montoya said of the road courses. "We've got to make sure that we take advantage when we run good and when we're not so good, make sure we score good points that day.

"I think the question is how good or how bad we unload. We're making a lot of progress in the last few races. I think the team is really pulling together.''

Ambrose faces greater pressure and scrutiny.

He was headed for the win last year at Infineon until his fuel conservation methods backfired. He occasionally shut his engine off to save fuel during a late caution. As Ambrose coasted uphill, he couldn't restart the car and stopped on the course briefly. NASCAR did not allow him to reclaim his lead. He instead restarted seventh, where he blended in after his engine restarted.

He finished sixth -- his worst result in the last five road course races. To lose a chance at victory like he did last year could be devastating for Ambrose, who is 21st in the points and likely needs at least a win to have a chance at the Chase.

"There's a lot of expectation at Sonoma for me,'' Ambrose said. "It's obviously one of my best chances to win. I know what is required of me. I've got to go and deliver.''

So must Allmendinger.

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He is 17th in the points after his 13th-place finish at Michigan. Allmendinger has been strong at times but has struggled to put together full races. That has him deeper in the points.

He was headed for a strong finish at Michigan until a caution came out during a green-flag pit cycle. Allmendinger had already pitted and that put him behind for the rest of the race. Instead of possibly a top-5 finish, he had to settle for a top-15 showing.

As he walked out of the garage Sunday, he wasn't focused as much on Sonoma as he was his team.

"Points don't matter right now,'' said Allmendinger, who has two top-10 finishes in his last three road course races. "We have to get better. We aren't a Chase team right now. Points to me, obviously you want to score every point you can, but we need to be better before we worry about making the Chase. Today was a big step. We were never really good here and we were a top-5 car all day. Thirteenth sucks in the end compared to what we had, but I am proud of what we did today instead of the points."

Points matter and they'll take greater importance the closer the season gets to September. That's when those wins could be key for some drivers.

Turnaround: Denny Hamlin's victory continued the team's progression, but easily overlooked in his win Sunday is how he took the lead.

His pit crew.

Hamlin was second to Carl Edwards before the final caution; he beat Edwards out to take the lead.

In April, Hamlin's pit crew struggled at Martinsville. He was fast most of the day, but often lost positions on pit road. The struggles were so great that the team used the front tire changer from teammate Joey Logano's crew for Hamlin's final stop. Hamlin's team switched front tire changers after that.

Another point overlooked Sunday was fuel mileage for Hamlin. Fuel mileage played a key role in Hamlin losing the title last year. He looked set to leave Phoenix last November with a large lead on Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick going into the season finale at Homestead until he had to pit late in the race. Johnson and Harvick didn't, closing Hamlin's gap. That gave Johnson the opportunity he needed to win his fifth consecutive championship.

Sunday, Hamlin noted the team's fuel mileage and how it's improved. "We feel like we've gotten that a little bit better,'' he said after winning the June Michigan race for the second consecutive year.

He also sees progress in all areas. "I feel like over the last six or seven weeks we've been as good as anyone,'' Hamlin said. "It feels good to get a win after sneaking up on everyone."

With a stronger pit crew and better fuel mileage, Hamlin's team is showing signs of building toward a title run.

J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, sees it."I get a lot of satisfaction watching those guys rally around each other,'' Gibbs said, "and look for some great momentum for the rest of the year.''

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here.